Posted Jan 1, 2018, 10:03 P.M.
On December 7, 2017, I went to see Ntozake Shange in conversation with Yolanda Wisher, Philadelphia’s current Poet Laureate, at the Free Library of Philadelphia. At about the 22 minute mark, Wisher asks Shange, “What do you think is the role of the artist today and going forward, and in particular, if you want to talk about the Black artist?” Shange replied:
The role of the artist is what they call in Cuba that of a cultural worker or cultural warrior. I used to call it cultural aggression. The role of the artist is to combat laziness and complacency and obfuscation of thought, and blurring of definitions. The role of the artist is to make everyone’s life more fecund, and more delicate, and more visible to them, so they can see themselves more clearly. The role of the artist is to do those things. If we do those things, we’re moving ourselves closer and closer to a liberation of the soul and the spirit, which will help us sustain ourselves, deliver ourselves to the real, true, visceral experience we’re having as an oppressed people.
As I write my first post and newsletter of 2018, I ask myself a slightly different question. What is the role of the unknown artist right now?
A little context. In 2017, I dramatically decreased my Twitter usage and stopped following (but remained friends with) a number of people on Facebook. The changes weren’t due to trolls or political disagreements—I haven’t blocked anyone for that in years—but to envy. I tweet less because I get no replies or retweets, unless I mention “Obama,” in which case Trolls for DT emerge by the hundreds with all the hatred and sophomoric commentary they can muster. The people I unfollowed on Facebook were sharing news of their book deals, links to literary and other magazines I want to be published in, blog posts gone viral, offers to write for major publications because of their blog posts that went viral, etc. I was sharing … well, not too many accomplishments.
I submitted and pitched a lot and got rejected a lot in 2017, published a few times. That’s typical for anyone in a creative career, and I accept this. What’s frustrating is when I think I write better than what I see getting published or going viral.
I’m not objective here, and when it comes to art—even writing, the art of the masses—no one is. The thought that I really don’t know how to write an essay crossed my mind many times in 2017. I finished my MFA (cheers!), but didn’t even share that online because it didn’t feel like an accomplishment. I submitted my thesis by uploading a file to the library’s system. No hard copy was required. The thesis reading, too, was anti-climactic. I didn’t walk because I technically graduated in October so I could fulfill a summer internship for my public history certificate. (I’m more excited about the certificate than I am about the MFA, and I’m the first-ever Public History Certificate holder from Rutgers-Camden’s program, but if that’s been boasted about anywhere, I haven’t seen it.) I also had the goal of securing a literary agent by graduation. Of the two who asked me to send work-in-progress after a speed-pitching session at a conference in 2016, one never responded. The other loved my work, but she said I wasn’t well-known enough. She suggested I get some essays published in major magazines and then contact her again. Unknown writers are hard to sell.
That agent also conceded that the publishing business is fickle and that another agent might say something completely different about my lack of popularity, but I felt defeated all the same. It was like being told, “You’re doing everything right, but still, no one wants you.” It felt like high school again. Me asking my friends: Why don’t boys like me? Them, already dating, in love, having sex telling me: You’re pretty, smart, make good grades, have a job—you’re too much for high school boys. You’ll meet the perfect guy in college.
In other words, keep doing what you’re doing and just wait.
I started blogging in 2009. None of my posts have ever gone viral. Some posts that have gone viral or been published in places I’d like to be published have quoted me and linked appropriately to my writing, so that’s something. No really, it is. The second time last year that happened, I cried. I needed reassurance that someone, somewhere, was still reading what I wrote. Someone was.
If I hadn’t, in searching for something else, seen that article and read my name in it just after unfollowing another writer humbly sharing some success I covet, I wasn’t going to quit writing; I was just going to quit writing for public consumption. Delete my electronic goal publications vision board. Stop pitching stories and essays. Maybe just journal.
Would I have been satisfied with this? Doubtful. See, I write to answer the questions I’m struggling with but also to help other people struggling with them, or to make other people struggle with them, too. Maybe I can’t change your mind or change the world, but sometimes I want to make people less certain of the structures, institutions, and concepts we put so much faith in. Meritocracy. Religion. Education. Government. Entitlement. Marriage. Forgiveness. Sin. Love. Beauty. Gender. Race. I think it’s important that we sometimes are so uncomfortable, so agitated that we “move ourselves closer and closer to a liberation of the soul and the spirit.”
I want to fulfill the artist’s role, and I think it starts with wrestling with myself. But to get from myself to ourselves, from me to us, requires more than a journal. So for this year and the foreseeable future, I’m going to keep sending my column to NCR once a month, keep submitting essays and poems to places on my goal publications list, keep pitching stories, and keep re-writing that book I started in 2011. I don’t know what to do about the jealously or the popularity contest. I have things to say about both, things about expectation, ambition, bootstrap mythology, “paying your dues” in the arts, how much I really hate sitting down. Things about the nature of what goes viral and what we’ve come to relish as entertainment and good reading material, about the call out, the clap back, the difference between wit and cattiness, between commodifying the Sapphire stereotype and reclaiming her, about the obfuscation of thought and the need to respond quickly and stay relevant.
I could write for years, starting with 2018. What is today the first day of for you?